Larry Prout stands 4 feet tall.
He’ll never play football, let alone be big or strong enough to play the game.
But he nevertheless is making a contribution to the Michigan football team, with heart and perseverance that inspires everyone who gets to know him.
And, for a testimonial, you can start with Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.
“Larry is a great guy,” he said. “He has one of those gifts of personality, enthusiasm
and attitude. It’s as good as it gets, a real inspiration, a fighter, no fear. He’s a champion, a winner all the way. We’re glad to have him on the team.”
Larry Prout, 15, who’s had nearly seven dozen operations in his young life and has had more medical conditions diagnosed than probably any five people you know, became a member of the Michigan football team last week.
It was at a ceremony at Schembechler Hall during Michigan’s bye week. Larry sat at a table with his parents, Harbaugh and John O’Korn, a quarterback whom he has befriended, as Harbaugh introduced him as a member of the Michigan football team.
“We feel like we drew the long straw in this one,” Harbaugh said. “The team got bigger and .. it was love at first sight with Larry. He loved us and we loved him back. That’s the best kind of love, the love at first sight. Anyone wants to be for us, we want to be for them.”
Before he was born …
To understand how Larry got to this moment, let’s go to before the beginning.
His parents, Larry Sr. and Kathy, were looking forward to their sixth child when they went in for an ultrasound in early 2001.
“I was 20 weeks pregnant,” Kathy Prout said. “I didn’t know what was going on. It was the first ultrasound my husband was able to come to, because usually he would be working. And it took an hour, because usually they take 15 minutes. The technician was really nice. Usually, they’re serious, but she was friendly, and it took an hour.
“And I said, ‘Wow, Larry, this is the longest it’s ever been. She’s telling us everything. It’s so nice. This is great.’ And then she excused herself and came in with the doctor, And I said, ‘I’ve never had a doctor come in for an ultrasound. They’re doing things differently.”’
“He said, ‘No, actually, they don’t come to ultrasounds and I have to tell you some bad news.’ The thing is, all through the pregnancy I knew something was going on, and I was telling people there was something not right. But I didn’t know what it was. I had no clue that was going on.”
The Prouts were told to go to the University of Michigan Hospital, where a team of doctors was assembled to prepare for Larry Jr.’s birth.
“He had no skin from his sternum to his rectum,” Kathy said of Larry’s birth. “All of his organs were out except his heart and lungs. His bladder was split in half. He has a 14-centimeter gap in front, so he could bring his legs up here (she pointed to her shoulder). Everything was out. I mean, everything. We couldn’t feed him, because food has bacteria, and his stool would come out everywhere. He was on IV nutrition, or he would get sicker.”
A sense of humor
Larry spent his first six months at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital on the U-M campus, and most of his first 18 months at the hospital.
“He was in there for surgeries, but he also used to get pneumonia quite frequently,” his mother said. “He’d get blood infections, sepsis, all kinds of things.”
He needed assistance to breathe thanks to a tracheotomy, and as a result wasn’t able to breathe until the apparatus was removed when Larry was 3 years old.
“The first thing he said was a hoot, like an owl,” she said. “We were all sitting around him on the living room floor and he made this little hoot, and then he laughed, which scared him, because he’d never heard himself laugh.”
His first word was ironic, to say the least, given his challenges.
“It was ‘lucky,'” Kathy said. “It was the craziest word. It’s like a three-legged dog named ‘Lucky,’ you know? That was his first word, and we would die laughing.”
She chuckled at the memory. Kathy Prout is very matter-of-fact when speaking of her son, neither minimizing nor making more of things than she has to. Her wry expression while talking about her son’s first word is part of her family’s sense of humor.
“Our family has a lot of humor,” she said. “We would laugh through a lot of stuff.”
“They all have that goofy smile,” said Pinckney football coach Jakob Gailitis, who has coached there for nearly a decade, first as an assistant, then as head coach. “All the Prouts have a goofiness, but in a good way. They’re fun-loving, happy people, and we couldn’t be happier than to have that whole family involved.
“They’re so spirited,” he added. “There’s no feeling sorry for themselves. There’s none of that. You know they have bad days, like everyone, but they never show it. They have a great love for life and a real spirit because of it. It’s contagious to everyone around them. You can’t have a bad day with that. You’ve got to emulate that.”
His siblings treat Larry as they do each other, with some restrictions. But not as many as you think.
“This guy,” Kathy said, sending a mock glare at her son, Mike, “took Larry and put a catcher’s mitt on him. He put pads all over him in his walker, because Larry was in a walker until he was 9.”
“I put a paintball mask on him,” Mike Prout said.
“Yes,” Kathy continued. “He has a paintball mask on him and he’s whipping baseballs at him. And Larry’s holding up this mitt that was gigantic. He’s so tiny, and Mike is whipping balls at him.
“They made videos of him that I didn’t know we had, and they’d be swinging him in circles on the trampoline and make him touch the metal so he would get a poke (of static electricity). And he’d giggle and laugh, at the same time saying, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’
“No, I did not know about that,” Kathy concluded, “or I would have stopped it.”
Again, her tone isn’t so much that of a mother of disabled child as much as any mother of six telling stories about them that she learned of well after the fact.
“He’s my brother,” Mike Prout said. “He’s got some disabilities, but they’re not going to stop him or stop us from doing brother things.”
“His brothers didn’t show him any mercy,” Kathy said. “It was good physical therapy, too, that his siblings treated him like any other child. They didn’t treat him like glass.”
Against all odds
Larry has, among other things, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and club feet. He didn’t walk until he was 9, when Larry Sr. was ailing.
“It happened the very weekend my husband was diagnosed with a liver disease,” Kathy said. “He went into liver failure as a byproduct of having ulcerative colitis. He was in the hospital, yellow as a school bus. Larry (Jr.) had been holding onto things, but we took him in there and he walked. Larry walked into the room when Big Larry was sick as a dog. So it’s like when something bad would happen, something good would happen. It got us through it.”
Larry has spent much of his life at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and Kathy said she regularly got glowing reviews from the nurses who cared for him.
“He doesn’t give up,” Kathy said. “He’s tough, but differently. He’s very brave. His nurses would tell him long ago, ‘You’re so brave.’ And he is.”
Larry grew up, his mom says, a part of the University of Michigan, and that feeling was reinforced by Thursday visits from U-M athletes.
“It’s a huge deal to the patients,” Kathy said. “The gymnasts and the rowers and the runners and the football players and the basketball players, and this is a huge deal to the patients. It helps kids get through the week. The things that help them get through are family, friends and these athletes who are larger than life.”
Joining the team
Earlier this year, Larry was paired up with the Michigan football team by Team Impact, a nonprofit organization that pairs children like Larry with college sports teams.
The Michigan lacrosse team is one of seven others in the state at all levels of athletics that have what Team Impact calls “drafted” a patient for the team. Larry and his family got the news in March, with a request to keep it a secret outside the family.
“Oh, gosh. We were dying,” Kathy said. “His brothers and sisters were so excited. We knew as a family this would be such a great thing for Larry and for all of us to go and have fun. We were gleeful. We were just bursting.”
Larry and his parents were invited to a barbecue that Harbaugh threw for his recruits, and he later bonded with players like running back DeVeon Smith and O’Korn.
“From the moment we met, you can tell he’s a special guy,” O’Korn said. “He’s someone who’s handled everything he’s gone through with such grace and dignity, such positivity. He’s just one of those people who walks into a room and kind of takes it over. He has an effect on everyone who’s around him and he brightens everyone’s day.”
Larry has a walker that doubles as a chair. He sits most of the time, but can and does walk. One day, he and Smith went to The Big House and played catch, with Larry taking the football and spiking it with glee. His mother said she had never seen him run so much or for so long.
“It was kind of awesome to see that, seeing him get to enjoy being in the Big House,” Smith said. “Sometimes people take a lot of stuff for granted, and I know I do sometimes. I think back to Larry, to honestly be thankful that I have the ability I have. Larry’s fighting every day.”
Larry has had 91 surgeries in his young life, with at least two more, one in each foot, coming up soon.
In the meantime, he goes to practices and some games.
“It’s so cool to me,” O’Korn said, “I was walking off the field after the Wisconsin game, and I hear him yell my name, I turn around and there’s Larry with a big smile on his face. Just gave him a big hug and got some pictures with him on the field. Things like that really puts things into perspective, and like I said, we couldn’t be happier to have him and his family as part of our family.”
Becoming a Wolverine
On his big day, Larry sat in his walker and spoke for a short time with a reporter.
His answers were short, not because of his condition, but from being a 15-year-old, not always a loquacious age.
“It’s really exciting,” Larry said of the event. “I’m really happy to be here.”
“Larry doesn’t say much,” Smith said. “But when he’s around me and John, he opens up a little more. He talks more than usual. He’s pretty cool. He doesn’t bust our chops, but we like to joke around with all the time with each other. It’s good to see him all the time.”
During the ceremony, Larry changed into a Michigan baseball cap and long-sleeved shirt identical to Harbaugh’s.
He read a statement thanking the team and his nurses and doctors, some of whom were in attendance.
The devotion was most evident in a nurse who was very pregnant, yet made the time to see her patient honored.
The home team
Larry’s brothers, Steve, John and Mike, all played football at Pinckney, and a sister, Molly, ran on the Pinckney track team.
Larry is home-schooled, because of his frequent absences for medical reasons, but he takes a photography class and gym at Pinckney High School, where he is a ninth-grader.
Larry says he prefers gym, where he participates in the sports the rest of the kids are in, including dodgeball.
“When he first came to our class, the teacher said we’re going to have a new kid, and he has a bright smile, making everyone laugh and having fun,” said Alex Wasyl, a member of the Pinckney football team. “Playing dodgeball with him is absolutely a blast. He has a lot of fun with it.
“It’s inspiring because you can see him being happy all the time. (Class is in the morning) and everyone’s a little lazy, but when they see Larry having fun, they get happy and stuff.”
The Pinckney football team also has adopted Larry, giving him a jersey with the No. 6, and inviting him to be on their sidelines during games.
“They’ve been a big part of the Pinckney school district and Pinckney athletics,” Pirates coach Jakob Gailitis said, speaking of the Prout family. “We want to make sure we honor them. He has the opportunity to do what his brothers did. I know he admires them so much that anything we can do to be close to them or help that relationship, we’re going to jump on.”
“The way I see it is when we see him on the sideline, and he’s got a smile on his face I like the fact we’re able to put that smile on his face and let him be a part of something like this,” Pinckney defensive lineman Wes Smith said. “Obviously, from his expressions and how he’s walking around the field giving us high-fives, he’s really super happy about that, and I’m happy to be a part of that and give him that opportunity to experience it.”
And you could say he’s a good-luck charm. In the games he’s attended, two for Michigan and four for Pinckney, his teams are 6-0.
Later this season, the Prouts will attend a Michigan game at Iowa, where their daughter Katie is a graduate student.
“Katie is our daughter who says, ‘What’s a football?'” Kathy says, chuckling. “Everyone else is football-crazy in our family. Larry’s brother’s played, (sister) Molly loves it. But (Katie) will have fun. She posted (the event) on her Twitter and said, “I guess I have to like football now.'”
“What a great family Larry has and what a great spirit he has,” Harbaugh said. “You can tell he’s blessed by God, and what a blessing to be able to be at Mott Children Hospital and the amazing miracle workers who are there. You wouldn’t want your kids anywhere else. We see them as miracle workers. That’s the way it is.”
“It’s really exciting to see Larry develop through his life and this shows how strong and how, all the courage Larry has, too,” Molly Prout said. “What this team is doing for Larry, too, just … gives him so much confidence, too. I love what the team is doing for him.
“He’s the rock of the family,” she continued. “He really is what keeps us going. If we have a really hard day, we look to Larry, and we think, I mean, he has gone through so many hard days, and I think I can get through this.”
Larry will take his family to Saturday’s Michigan home game against Illinois.
“He has five older siblings,” Kathy said, “and he’s gone to their football games, their dance recitals and track events, and he’s always cheering them on, and now he gets to bring them here. We’ve gone to games as a family, and they’ve given us marvelous tickets.
“Being a part of U-M football has given Larry something to brag about, talk about, be proud of,” she said. “Nobody’s done that that he knows. Everyone he knows plays a sport or competes in things Larry can’t do, and this is something that no one else he knows can do, and it makes him special.”
“It’s huge,” Mike Prout said. “Couldn’t ask for more for my little brother, who’s been through so much. Since Day 1, he’s had to deal with surgeries and pain, and, like my dad said, this is icing on the cake. We didn’t expect this. This is awesome. We’re really grateful.”
“I have a lot of respect for that family and we care about them deeply and all they’ve done for this community,” Gailitis said. “Not just this one activity. They’ve done a lot more than that. It’s a fun time for them and I’m glad they have a chance to do these fun activities, because they deserve it, what they’ve been through. Not just Larry , but all of them. So to be a little piece of that is pretty cool. It’s pretty meaningful.”